2010 - %3, March

Chart of the Day: 8th Grade Reading

| Thu Mar. 25, 2010 1:24 PM EDT

Is our kids learning? Probably, but at least when it comes to reading they aren't learning any better than in the past. NAEP reading scores for 2009 have just been released and they're pretty uninspiring. Scores for 8th graders have been flat since 2002, and as the chart on the right shows, they've been flat at pretty much all achievement levels. Good readers are reading as well as they did in 2002 and poor readers are reading as poorly. Black-white and Hispanic-white gaps have narrowed ever so slightly, and the male-female gap has stayed about the same. Broken out by public, private, and Catholic schools, scores still remain flat across the board.

So is there any good news? Well, scores for the worst readers have improved at the 4th grade level, and it's possible that these improvements will eventually filter up to the higher grades as well. That hasn't happened in the past (in fact, gains in the lower grades tend to wash out at higher grades), but you never know. Maybe this time they will.

Of course, there is another bit of good news: American students may not be improving much in reading, but neither has there been a wholesale collapse, as news reports sometimes suggest. Reading scores are slightly up over the past two decades, and math scores are up considerably. But count me as skeptical of this, from the New York Times:

In seeking to explain the lagging reading scores, some experts point to declines in the amount of reading children do for pleasure as they devote more free time to surfing the Internet, texting on cellphones or watching television. Others blame undemanding curriculums.

For example, Susan Pimentel, an expert on English and reading standards who is a member of the governing board that oversees the test, said that American schools were fairly efficient at teaching basic reading skills in the early grades, but that as students matured they need to be consistently challenged to broaden those skills by reading not only complex literature but also sophisticated nonfiction in subjects like history and science.

Reading scores haven't "lagged," they've been flat. And they've been flat for 20 years, which means that the internet and texting are pretty unlikely to be at fault. In fact, to the extent that the internet has replaced TV watching, it seems as if it's likely to be a net benefit, not a problem.

But for whatever reason, we seem to have gotten a lot better at teaching math (scores are up 20+ points over the past two decades, roughly two grade levels) but not at teaching reading. The reasons remain elusive.

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The Other Climate Bill

| Thu Mar. 25, 2010 1:21 PM EDT

Ready for the battle of the climate bills? As John Kerry, Lindsey Graham and Joe Lieberman hammer out climate legislation, their biggest challenge may not be coal-state Democrats, or Republicans who deny global warming—but a bipartisan pair of senators who believe they've already produced  better legislation.

Sens. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) introduced climate legislation last November, attracting almost no attention—despite the fact that bipartisan bills dealing with Obama's major domestic policy initiatives belong on the endangered species list these days. Collins has been supportive of previous climate bills, and is seen as one of a small handful of potential Republican "yes" votes for legislation this year. But the pair like to point out that they've actually written a bipartisan bill, while Kerry, Graham and Lieberman get all the attention for just talking about one. "It’s very difficult to judge what’s actually in Sen. Kerry's bill when he has not yet produced an actual bill," Collins told reporters on Wednesday at an event sponsored by the Bipartisan Policy Center. "I think it's changed 25 times in the last 25 days," Cantwell said. Collins added: "Rather than seeing parts of our bill cannibalized and put into another bill, I think they should take a look at coming on to our legislation."

The Carbon Limits and Energy for America's Renewal Act, or CLEAR, uses a "cap-and-dividend" approach to cutting carbon dioxide emissions. Basically, this is a lot like the cap-and-trade system entrenched in the Waxman-Markey climate bill passed by the House last year. But there are some key differences. Under cap and trade, all emitters are required to comply with a cap on greenhouse gases. Those who emit too much can buy pollution permits from those who emit less than their limit. But in cap and dividend, the majority of pollution permits are auctioned off only to the first-sellers of fossil fuels—that is, oil refineries and coal-mining companies. Seventy-five percent of the money raised from the sale of those permits is returned to energy consumers via a rebate. The remaining 25 percent would go to renewable energy and energy efficiency programs.

Proponents of this system argue that it's a lot simpler than cap and trade, mainly because it doesn't require a complex trading system for permits. The legislation drafted by Cantwell and Collins is only 39 pages—a dramatic contrast with the Waxman-Markey bill in the House, which clocked in at 946 pages.

Fiore Cartoon: Health Care Rage

Thu Mar. 25, 2010 1:20 PM EDT

According to the GOP, the health care bill is a death panel totalitarian scheme put forth by a socialist axis of evil with the intent of mandating abortions and harvesting organs.

According to those who've read the bill, it's a deficiting-reducing plan that will provide health care coverage to millions of uninsured Americans.

Watch satirist Mark Fiore take on competing theories about the bill below:

Now Insurers Back Health Care Reform?

| Thu Mar. 25, 2010 1:13 PM EDT

After vehemently opposing the Democratic health care plan, insurance companies are doing an about-face. The industry’s main trade group, America’s Health Insurance Plans, has announced that it will join Enroll America, a new non-profit devoted to registering those people who will newly qualify for insurance subsidies or Medicaid under the law.

After spending massive sums in an attempt to defeat the bill, why are insurers suddenly eager to help the reforms succeed? "It’s good business for them," says Families USA's Ron Pollack, who is heading up the Enroll America effort. “All of them will benefit from a business plan standpoint to extend coverage." He adds that pharmaceutical companies and hospitals have also expressed strong interest in joining the coalition, along with pro-reform advocacy groups already committed to helping the uninsured.

The Affordable Care Act is expected to insure some 32 million new Americans. In fact, the promise of new customers had originally convinced industry groups to support reform. But insurers turned against the bill after Democrats decided to weaken the individual mandate to purchase insurance and to toughen insurance regulations. 

KBR: What the DOD Detectives Saw

| Thu Mar. 25, 2010 12:36 PM EDT

As a journalist, as well as a military veteran and former Iraq contractor, I try to keep abreast of the latest developments in America's warfighting forces—public and private. Which is why I was unsurprised to find a new report this month by the DOD inspector general on KBR's lazy Iraq contracting. But I was surprised when I found no references to the report in the mainstream media—even as KBR won a new $2.3 billion-plus contract for five more years of "services" in Iraq.

Here's what the big news organizations missed: In 2008 and 2009, KBR got $5 million for its mechanics to maintain tactical vehicles (Humvees, big rigs) on a base north of Baghdad. (It's the same base where ex-KBR employee Jamie Leigh Jones says she was raped, and where KBR burn pits are reportedly killing soldiers.) At the end of that time, when the Pentagon poked around, it found that by KBR's own (slapdash) estimates, the firm's workers only did work about 7 percent of the time they were on duty (and billing) for. When DOD investigators tried to run their own numbers, it got worse: In one month, 144 mechanics did an average of 43 minutes of work each.

The undiscovered report is likely to become bigger news soon: a commission set up by Congress to deal with waste and accountability in wartime contracting is meeting on Capitol Hill Monday, and its members want to know why KBR hasn't offered a real plan to draw down its ranks in Iraq, even as US soldiers are withdrawing. By one estimate, KBR alone could cost taxpayers up to $193 million between now and August by keeping more people in the desert than we need. But even that estimate may be optimistic: One member of the wartime contracting commission, Charles Tiefer, tells me, "If KBR has underutilized rates in many of its operations anywhere near the rates found by the inspector general study...that would support a search for savings on the order of $300 million." Tiefer told me: "You're the only [journalist] who's read the inspector general's report."

Check out the full story here. And pass it around. Maybe soon the mainstream media will start asking some questions, too.

Ralph Reed's Terrifying Book Trailer

| Thu Mar. 25, 2010 12:28 PM EDT

Most progressives left Ralph Reed for dead in 2006. That's when incriminating e-mails about "humping in some corporate accounts," coupled with a sound primary thunking in his race for Georgia lieutenant governor, seemed to cast the former head of the Christian Coalition into political exile. And while Reed has attempted to revive his political career of late—mulling a run for Congress in Georgia, opposing health care reform, and attempting to align his new PAC, the Faith and Freedom Coalition, with the Tea Party—he's a shell of the cocky organizer who once warned opponents, "You don't know it's over until you're in a body bag."

But with every death comes rebirth. So said the ancients, and so it is with Reed. In his case, "rising from the ashes of his political career" translates to a bright new future in supermarket express-line political thrillers. Reed's first book, Dark Horse, sold pretty well, and, as one friend raved to me, "it actually wasn't  that terrible." But that was only the beginning. Yesterday, Reed tweeted the release of a movie trailer for his latest book, due out in September. (Since when do books get their own trailers?) It's called The Confirmation, it's about a Supreme Court confirmation (and so much more!), and it's a reminder of just how much healthier politics are when Ralph Reed is writing paperbacks about SCOTUS nominees rather than, you know, vetting them. Anyways, we checked out the trailer and can report that it is truly and utterly terrifying. Behold:

The syringe! The syringe! What is going on at the 0:33 mark? Tell us your wildest disaster scenario in the comments. Also, kudos to Ralph for absolutely nailing my writing process at 0:11.

 

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Quote of the Day: Death Threats

| Thu Mar. 25, 2010 12:23 PM EDT

From James Joyner, on the violence and death threats that have been aimed at Democrats who voted for healthcare reform:

Unlike Michelle Malkin, Dan Riehl, and others, I do think Republican leaders have some responsibility to condemn violence. No, I don’t think they’re directly responsible for any of it; we don’t yet even know for sure who’s making the threats. But we’ve had over a year of very heated rhetoric over the dire consequences that would flow from a government takeover of one sixth of the economy, death panels, legislation being rammed through with dirty tricks, and all the rest. That’s part and parcel of American politics these days and mostly fine. But, with signs that people are going off the rails evidence, it’s time for leaders to calm their followers.

Amen to that.

Clean Energy Investment Around the World

| Thu Mar. 25, 2010 11:43 AM EDT

A new Pew report shows that our investment in clean energy tech has started to lag considerably:

For the first time, China led the United States and other G-20 members in 2009 clean energy investments and finance, according to data released today by The Pew Charitable Trusts. Last year, China invested $34.6 billion in the clean energy economy — nearly double the United States’ total of $18.6 billion. Over the last five years, the United States also trailed five G-20 members (Turkey, Brazil, China, the United Kingdom, and Italy) in the rate of clean energy investment growth.

“The facts speak for themselves,” said Bloomberg New Energy Finance Chief Executive Michael Liebreich. “2009 clean energy investment in China totaled $34.6 billion, while in the United States it totaled $18.6 billion. China is now clearly the world leader in attracting new capital and making new investments in this area.”

....The United States’ clean energy finance and investments lagged behind 10 G-20 members in percentage of gross domestic product. For instance, in relative terms, Spain invested five times more than the United States last year, and China and the United Kingdom three times more.

The raw numbers are below. The full report is here (PDF). The table on the right shows clean energy investment as a percent of GDP, and the United States clocks in at 0.13%, just below Italy and Mexico. That's pretty grim. You can argue — unpersuasively, I think, but you can argue — that the U.S. is always going to be behind countries like China and Mexico in any industry that's manufacturing-intensive, but that hardly explains why we're also considerably behind Europe, Britain, and Canada. It's why we need a climate bill regardless of whether you take climate change seriously. Everyone else does, and we ought to be competing for our share of the pie.

Petraeus for...?

| Thu Mar. 25, 2010 11:29 AM EDT

At a presser in Manchester, New Hampshire yesterday, Gen. David Petraeus once and for all squashed rumors that he has presidential ambitions (and rendered obsolete the Petraeus 2012 website). At least I think he did:

I thought I’d said no about as many ways as I could. I really do mean no. We have all these artful ways of doing it. I’ve tried Shermanesque responses, which everybody goes and finds out what Sherman said was pretty unequivocally no. I’ve done several different ways. I’ve tried quoting the country song, ‘What Part of No Don’t You Understand?’ I mean, I really do mean that. I feel very privileged to be able to serve our country. I’m honored to continue to do that as long as I can contribute, but I will not, ever, run for political office, I can assure you. And again, we have said that repeatedly and I’m hoping that people realize at a certain point you say it so many times that you could never flip, and start your career by flip-flopping into it.

Hmmm. So he's not ruling out a cabinet level appointment, then. Secretary of State? Let the rampant speculation commence!

 

Rove and Douthat Still Ducking an Iraq War Debate

| Thu Mar. 25, 2010 10:58 AM EDT

Last week I challenged Karl Rove, the former Bush White House strategist; Peter Wehner, who worked in the W. administration; and Ross Douthat, the conservative New York Times columnist, to a duel. Each had recently pooh-poohed the notion that Bush had misled the nation into the Iraq war. In response, I had penned a column listing numerous misrepresentations used by Bush, Dick Cheney and other administration officials to grease the way to war. I noted that these false assertions had not been supported by the intelligence available at the time and that Bush and his crew, when declaring that Iraq posed a WMD threat, had overstated the iffy intelligence and had made stuff up. I dared Rove, Wehner, and Douthat to a debate during which they could respond to these various quotes.

I didn't hear back from any of them. (Wehner and I are colleagues at PoliticsDaily.com, where we both write columns.)

But NPR was interested. A producer called and asked if I would appear on its Talk of the Nation show with Wehner. Certainly, I said. Hours later, the producer informed me that Wehner would not be available for the particular day we had discussed: could I come on with Wehner another day? Of course, I replied, anytime, anywhere. Still, it turned out that Wehner wasn't available for that day, either. I had a sneaky suspicion he was ducking this fight. I suggested that the producer try Rove or Douthat. I don't know if he bothered with Rove, who was on a book tour. But Douthat turned him down, too.

Eventually, this persistent producer booked Michael Rubin. He's an American Enterprise Institute fellow, who worked in the Pentagon during the Bush administration and was associated with the neoconservative hawks who pushed for war against Iraq.

During the broadcast, Rubin defended the decision to go to war. When I cited the false statements made by Bush about the threat posed by Iraq, he declined to address them directly and instead pointed out that Democrats had made similar assertions. Rubin also tried to absolve Bush by saying that intelligence tends to be uncertain—and actually placed himself in a corner:

RUBIN: There's also, frankly, if you've ever looked at raw intelligence, you find that the CIA says a little bit of everything, and it never is clear. It's like looking coming up with a policy and coming up with any sort of consistency is—has it's like looking for a needle in a stack of needles.

CORN: If you say it's not consistent, how can you have leaders of this country come out and say there's no doubt [that Iraq has WMD and posed a direct threat to the United States]? Bush said several times that Iraq, Saddam Hussein, was dealing with al-Qaida. The intelligence, according to the 9/11 Commission, didn't show that. They said things that were not—this is the essential point in this debate—they said things that were not backed up by the intelligence at the time.

Neal Conan, the host, didn't want to dwell on the pre-war period, and the conservation moved on to whether the Iraq war has been worth it. So there still hasn't been a full debate on whether Bush purposefully sold the war with whoppers. Rove, Wehner, and Douthat insist that is not true. But they won't agree to a face-off. Maybe they can't handle the truth. My challenge to them stands.